City planning department left with void
Tom Leeson to leave position
December 28, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Editor’s Note: This story has been changed from its original version, to reflect that Gavin McMillan is the former city planner II whose position will remain vacant for the foreseeable future.
Tom Leeson, the city's director of planning and community development, will leave that position in April amid a time of decreased staffing and changing focus for the department.
His departure will follow that of planning services manager John Eastman, who was the department's second-in-command and left in November to work toward a master's degree in planning at the University of Texas in Austin.
Leeson said Tuesday that he plans to attend the University of Maryland to work toward a master's degree in real estate development, with a concentration in sustainable design. His last day will be April 1.
Leeson and Steamboat Springs City Manager Jon Roberts said last week that the city will begin recruiting for Leeson's position shortly after the new year, but there are no plans to fill Eastman's position given the department's decreased workload.
"Currently, we do not plan to fill that spot," Roberts said. "We reserved the slot in the budget, but it was not our intention to fill it next year."
Leeson said he does not expect the slowing construction and development industries to pick up speed significantly next year.
"I don't see it picking up enough to probably fill any positions other than the director's position in 2010," Leeson said. He noted that after a period of booming development in the middle part of the decade, when plans for new, mixed-use buildings seemed to come one after another in downtown Steamboat, the planning department now has time to take a breath.
"The workload has changed focus a little bit, from spending just about all of our time on development review, to more of a long-range focus," Leeson said. "It's kind of nice to be able to have that time."
That long-range focus includes addressing long-sought community code amendments, he said, such as adjustments to commercial districts along U.S. Highway 40 that will allow decreased setbacks and increased density, creating "slightly more urban form, (rather) than the more suburban form that is allowed now."
The Planning and Community Development Department also soon will be addressing changes to the city's sign code and floodplain regulations, Leeson said, along with minor changes to the city's vacation home rental regulations.
Leeson said in addition to the director position, the department's staffing includes two senior planners, a planner II position and a planner I position.
The planning services manager position and a planner II position held by former city employee Gavin McMillan will remain vacant for the foreseeable future, Leeson said.
Leeson said he hopes to expand his professional repertoire at the University of Maryland.
"Long range, I would like to be able to have my own company that focuses on both planning and sustainable development, and a big focus of this degree is the financing of development … which is currently a weakness that I have, in terms of the money side of things," he said. "This will give me a skill set that I don't currently have and allow me to branch out."
4 dynamic years
Leeson has worked in Steamboat's city planning department for nine years, including the past four years as director.
He oversaw the planning process for downtown developments including Howelsen Place, Alpen Glow, The Victoria and the Olympian, in addition to leading a comprehensive review of the annexation agreement for the proposed Steamboat 700 development just west of current city limits.
But he said he is most proud of facilitating an improved relationship with the development community that has led to better final products through better collaboration.
"When I first arrived, there was a kind of adversarial relationship between the planning department and the development community, and I really strived to change the way the development community and the planning department interacted, with a more collaborative approach," Leeson said.
He said overall, he has a positive view on the changes he sees when driving or walking down Lincoln Avenue.
"For downtown, I'm pleased with the way that's developed out in the last several years — there's been a lot of positive changes," he said. "Certainly, there have been some mistakes made, but you make decisions based on the best information at the time."
As for Steamboat 700, which city voters will decide whether to approve in a mail-only ballot that ends March 9, Leeson said he is confident that the plan meets the goals of the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan.
"I think that we negotiated an annexation agreement that implemented the West Steamboat plan exactly as it had been envisioned. For 15 years, the community said it wanted to grow to the west in a particular form and in particular timing," Leeson said. "I think we negotiated the plan as best as we could and protected the city as best as we could. … I would be very confident that if it passes, it will develop out just as it's envisioned in the West Steamboat plan."
Opponents of Steamboat 700 question the annexation's potential costs and impacts to the city regarding water use and traffic, and they say efforts to provide affordable housing fall short of what is needed and could ultimately prove too costly for homebuyers.
Leeson said if voters deny the annexation, his department's new director will need to revisit the city's community plan.
"I think we (would) really need to start over as a community," Leeson said.
For the past four years, Leeson has been credited as being a calming, resourceful presence during contentious Steamboat Springs City Council debates in Centennial Hall, earning respect from city staff and council members. Roberts said Leeson's work ethic and institutional knowledge will be missed.
"Tom brought many positive aspects. Certainly a great deal of enthusiasm, (and) he brought the greatest amount of participation into the planning and development process by the staff and the public and the City Council," Roberts said.